Saturday, March 5, 2011

Meet Carl Aldrich, Author of "Taphophilia: Investigations of Our Heritage "

The eightieth in a series
featuring a member of
The Graveyard Rabbit Association


Chronicling the adventures of a history student in Utah,  on a cultural resource management internship to document cemeteries in Northern Utah and Southeast Idaho

Thank you for the opportunity to talk a little bit about my blog and myself. My topic is very important and interesting to me, and I love sharing it with others. I realize that I am rather young to be interested in cemeteries; in my travels I’ve talked to many people who are my parents age or older. I give myself hope, though: my generation does not seem to value history, our heritage and culture, or the artisanship of bygone years. Being in the minority is a tough spot, but as long as there is a minority the hope of humans returning to an appreciation of humanities is still alive.

What Graveyard Rabbit site(s) do you run?
Taphophilia: Investigations of Our Heritage.

What first interested you in joining the GYR Association? 
I was just looking for other blogs about cemeteries, as well as a way to get folks reading what I have to say. I actually started the blog because of one friend who kept asking why I wasn’t blogging about my cemetery adventures so that he could follow them… But I figured there would be more than one person interested in reading about my adventures with dead people! I was about to give up, and then I found Graveyard Rabbit’s website and the list of other blogs. Everyone wins from my joining: people will have a way of finding my blog, and I have an easy reference list of others.

Did you always have a fascination with cemeteries? Or did this develop out of your genealogy work?
I have always been fascinated with history and folklore pertaining to our built world in general. My mom would always take me to the cemetery, but not the cool one with huge trees and rocks sticking out of the ground; my relatives are mostly buried in a “flat-marker-only” cemetery. I made my big break into cemeteries in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when my family moved into a house two blocks from a very nice and historic cemetery. At that point, I really gained an appreciation for the different styles of markers, statuary, and even the way in which cemeteries are laid out.
Here in Logan, Utah, I live across the street from one of the best cemeteries in the West! People here really appreciate their ancestors with beautiful markers and fun decorations, and the city keeps the grounds in impeccable shape. I walk through every day on my way to classes at the university and always see something new and great. I am in my final semester now as a history student and got an internship with a local heritage area, documenting the 150-ish cemeteries and pioneer burial sites throughout Northern Utah and Southeastern Idaho.

Do your family members think you are a “little off center” with respect to your cemetery obsession?
As I said before, my mother would regularly take me to the cemetery. She loves them and helped me get started. Therefore, my parents are supportive of this personal interest and excited for my internship. In fact, my mother recently decided that I could be useful for something and research some Native American burial grounds for her. My wife faced a period of getting used to the whole cemetery thing. She was raised with the philosophy that you visit graves of people whom you know on Memorial Day and never walk around the graves. It was an especially awkward moment for her the first time I sat in a grave marker/bench combo in her presence! Most people are very interested in what I do and (at least to my face) want to know more about the things that I’ve learned.

Which situation evokes an immediate response of “Oh! Oh! Stop the car!”
- you spy a yard sale in the distance
- you notice a cemetery from 1⁄4 mile away
- you see a sexy man on the side of the road
- from afar you spy Elvis with your eye
I’m a bit young for Elvis… I like the guy and all, but my mom was a kid when he may or may not have died!
I think I am more of a sucker for historical markers on the side of the road than anything else. I have made plenty of side trips for yard sales and cemeteries, though I am fairly sure there isn’t a historical marker within 200 miles that I haven’t seen.

What advice do you have for anyone considering joining GYR and creating their own GYR-affiliated blog?
I am fairly new to the whole blogging thing myself, so I don’t know that I am the person to go to for advice. The only thing I should say is this: if you have a cemetery blog, or you have things to say about them, sign up for GYR. The interest for our topic is low, and if you want to have more than two people read your blog in a year you need to get into a network like this!

What advice would you have for would-be cemetery dogs?
Figure out how serious you want to be and let that guide you. When I started out nine years ago, my only focus was looking at all the cool stones, mausoleums, and statues. I moved on to taking photos and finding the graves of locally significant people. After visiting a few older cemeteries in poor condition, I realized how important it is to preserve these sacred places that have been forgotten and, in some cases, lost.
Now that I am a pseudo-professional, I have a way of preserving cemeteries and documenting them in a way that actually makes a difference. As part of my project (a major part for the heritage area, but a secondary one for my personal fulfillment), I will be developing a travel itinerary for heritage tourists to see some of the great cemeteries that we have here in the West. I am purposely a bit vague and don’t provide a ton of photographs of individual cemeteries on my blog. Since I am working for a government agency, it would be perfectly fine and legal for me to post every picture that I take and every write-up that I write onto a blog. However, I would hate to do all of the work that I am and not have people take advantage of my final product. I also don’t want to be in a position of competing with the heritage area when people are angry about government spending and put humanities (including heritage/cultural resource preservation) very high on lists of “wasteful spending.”
Anyway… Aside from documenting and researching the cemeteries, I have the difficult task of taking 150 known burial grounds and paring it down to a dozen or less of the most significant. To make educated choices I checked out a stack of books from the library, read several articles, and became proficient in cemetery history, grave marker history, styles, symbolism, and historically significant people buried in the area. I also found very valuable primary resources in my library’s archives, which includes one of the premier folklore collections in the country.
There is definitely room to take a grave interest as lightly or seriously as the potential “dog” sees appropriate. Just be careful; it’s addicting!

How about photography; any advice there?
Get a decent camera and learn how to use it! Pictures taken with your cell phone camera will not be useful for documenting. Most higher-end point and shoot cameras are fine, but for maximum control and quality, you should invest in a DSLR. I received two pieces of advice related to cemetery photography that I have used regularly:
1. Use your camera in aperture priority or full manual mode (if your camera features either). This is a good way to maintain some control over the quality of your pictures.
2. Use your camera’s bracketing mode, if available. I have found that if the sun is behind your subject, you should overexpose slightly; if the sun is blaring on it, underexpose. When in doubt, bracket. This way you get three photos: one overexposed, one underexposed, and one right in the middle. This can be a lifesaver if you drive three hours to a cemetery and aren’t sure of what to do with the light you have. Plus if you have Photoshop, you can put the three photos together to make one that is properly balanced.

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